Agile Business: How Small Becomes Big Quickly

16th October 2020Business Development


Agile business is smart business.

I learned this lesson a long time ago.

“The problem with you is: You want a brand-new Ferrari but all I can offer you right now is an old bike”

This was quite literally what my boss said to me when I presented him with my comprehensive improvement plan for the struggling business that I had just joined.

There was probably not that much wrong with the plan itself.

After all, I’d come from an organisation that was good at planning and business improvement. But it was not what was required in the circumstances.

That’s because the business was losing money and could not invest in the way that I’d expected. Plus, it didn’t have time to develop grand plans or run extensive projects.

This was way back in 2004. Although I didn’t know it then, this was my welcome to the world of agile business.

What can you do with an old bike?

For a start you can get it back into full working order. Then, start cycling in the right direction.

As it happened, I was fortunate. I’d inherited a team of highly motivated individuals. I also found myself working alongside talented colleagues who were fully invested in business change.

In fact, becoming more agile was a matter of survival.

At first, the old bike had a few wobbles, so we pedalled faster to steady ourselves.

Eventually, we started to make some slow progress. Hard yards, admittedly, but getting started is always the hardest part. Especially, if you are cycling into a headwind.

And then, something amazing happened. We started to get results – an early glimpse of what was to come.

In fact, we had begun to harvest the “low-hanging fruit” that comes from agile business development.

Encouraged, we went faster and further. The wider organisation took note. When you start to get results, you attract additional resources.

And so, the business invested in more people. Metaphorically, the old bike had been upgraded to a motorbike.

The thrill of the motorbike ride

Riding a motorbike is thrilling for sure, but not for the faint hearted.

For our ever more agile business, results were coming faster, revenues were accelerating, but the journey was not without risk.

That’s because we were trying new business development strategies. Strategies that hadn’t been attempted before.

We were asking “what if questions” and testing out hypotheses.

Spending time on the frontline, talking to customers, experimenting, failing, learning, and starting over.

Clearly, there is huge benefit in proving (or disproving) concepts in real time and in real-life scenarios.

By enlisting the support of others outside of the organisation, by failing fast and learning quickly you get to know what works and what doesn’t.

If you can make new things happen with old tools and legacy systems, just imagine how much better you could become by investing in systems, processes and tools?

Moreover, when you run proof of concepts (POC’s) in old systems, you understand better the new processes needed thereby de-risking your investment in new systems.

And this is exactly what happened in our agile business.

In the end, we attracted the right investment in systems to go even more quickly but with greater stability.

At last, we could scale and make what was new business, business as usual.

The metaphorical motorbike was morphing into a sportscar

At last a sportscar, but perhaps not quite a Ferrari.

5 years on from that conversation with my boss, the business was travelling very fast indeed. Double-digit revenue growth for 3 consecutive years and an increasingly healthy bottom line.

The fact is, an amazing collective of dedicated and talented people had totally transformed the business.

Of course, we didn’t ever get a Ferrari.

That’s because the agile business development steps that we’d taken over 5 years were not the ones set out in such detail on that initial, grand plan.

They were far better because they were smart (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely). For the truth is that heavy planning only gets you so far.

Theoretical numbers look great on Excel spreadsheets. Whilst project plans are always impressive in whatever form you present them.

However, the real world is a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous place.

So, getting out there as soon as you can to put your theory into practice always makes sense.

By all means, think big but remember to organise small and to act fast. Above all, to win, be agile.

I learned this lesson 15 years ago, not from a scrum master or a six sigma blackbelt, but from a boss who constantly challenged me to “test and learn” and to “change speed”.

So, if your boss offers you a bike, don’t spend your time trying to convince him/her to buy you a brand new sportscar, get on your bike and ride.

Good luck on your own agile business development journey!